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Notes from Beirut: An Interview with Marwan M. Kraidy


Marwan M. Kraidy, Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, an expert on Arab media and politics, is currently on leave in Lebanon as the Edward Said Chair in American Studies at the American University of Beirut.


There, he is gathering data for a book about the politics of Arab music videos in the new media environment, a project supported by a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, and working on field research for additional book projects. Professor Kraidy’s scholarly interests center on the role of media institutions in shaping social experiences of modernity in the non-West, and he has written extensively on how local and national societies cope with cultural globalization.




We checked in with him mid-way through his research leave to get a first-hand account of his time in a region many regard as the best classroom for understanding new media and political activism.

You left in September. How have the first six months been?


It has been an exceptional experience so far, and I have learned tremendously and gathered a great deal of hard data, stories, impressions, pictures, and other research materials. It is clearly a momentous time in the Middle East, and I am fortunate to be sitting in the middle of it all.

Why Beirut?


Because it is, ironically, a haven of tranquility in a region in upheaval, and because it has a vibrant cultural, intellectual, and political life. Beirut is a fantastic crossroads to be located in. Along with Cairo, Beirut is a hub for music video production and political graffiti. The American University of Beirut is a remarkable institution that gave me great colleagues, an extensive library, and access to a stupendous array of academic and cultural events, many of them about media and cultural production during and after the Arab uprisings. I have participated in numerous cultural and academic events about the Arab uprisings, and have spent time with cyber activists, graffiti artists, musicians, singers, poets, cartoonists, etc. from every single national uprising in the Arab world. As a result I have learned a great deal, confirmed hunches, and refuted shaky assumptions.



                                      

Marwan Kraidy lecturing at Georgetown University in Qatar


Can you share some of your findings so far?


I wouldn’t say I have ‘findings’ at this point, but I am seeing patterns of political activism and cultural production in the region that challenge the prevalent view about the role of digital media, and as a result I am developing conceptual frameworks that will hopefully contribute to redefining what we mean by media and communication in revolutionary times. What I can tell you for sure is that some of my views about Arab media, culture, and politics have been profoundly challenged by my presence here, and that having the time to write will be my most valuable commodity when I return to Penn in August.



Do you think the Western media is accurately portraying the changes taking place in the Middle East?


Overall, I do not think Western media are aware of—at least they do not reflect—the complexities and nuances and radical diversity characterizing contemporary Arab culture and politics since the events started in Tunisia in 2010. You simply cannot comprehend the uprisings, their causes, and consequences without fluency in Arabic, sustained presence and extensive contacts in the region, and open-minded interactions with people making and living the events. There are a few exceptions, most notably The New York Times' Anthony Shadid, my erstwhile neighbor in Ain el-Mreissé, Beirut who tragically died in Syria of an asthma attack a few months ago.



What other countries have you visited?


I have traveled to several Arab countries for field research, invited lectures, symposia, etc. For example, in Cairo, Egypt, I met with activists, spend time on Tahrir Square, and collected photos of revolutionary graffiti. In Doha I gave talks and did some research. In Izmir, Turkey, I gave two talks and had a great time with media workers and academics, discussing Turkey’s rise as a major power in the Middle East. In Amman, Jordan, I gave talks and documented graffiti and banners. In Beirut I did all of the above, met media creators, conversed with correspondents covering the Syrian crisis, photographed and mapped political graffiti and got an extensive and embodied “being-there” field experience.



What is your ultimate goal of this research leave?


To return to Annenberg with a treasure trove of data and field experiences.It is my hope to contribute to a deeper understanding of the momentous events sweeping the Arab world.





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